Friday, 7 August 2015

It's back! Ahead of the new season, how are Premier League clubs shaping up?

With the Ashes in full swing and going so well for England, the Premier League’s return feels a tad premature. And it is. England’s premier competition returns a week early owing to Euro 2016. Sky and BT have both pulled out all the stops with extravagant, expensive adverts. The sparing is over, the scene is set. Lights. Camera. Action!

Spending across the league has never looked so effortless, with mid to lower-placed sides bringing in some of the hottest talents across Europe.  Crystal Palace, Newcastle and West Ham, to name but a few, have all been busy acquiring upgrades from France and the Netherlands. Indeed, Jose Mourinho concedes the league will be won with a lower points tally to last season as the gap between the top sides and the rest narrows.

The significance of retaining Premier League status this time next year has added significance with the new TV deal coming into effect for 2016/17. Even relegated teams will earn £100m. While there’s added significance for West Ham. They’ll want to move into the Olympic Stadium as a Premier League side, rather than a Championship one.

So ahead of the new season, how are the 20 teams looking?


Mourinho’s side finished last season eight points clear of Manchester City, and they remain the side to beat. But they have been weakened by the departure of Petr Cech and it remains to be seen how much of a differential he is. It is a risk selling directly to a title rival, and you expect this was not Mourinho’s call. Cech’s 11 years of loyal service was considered by Roman Abramovich, and his desire to remain in London was granted. Out goes Didier Drogba, in comes Radamel Falcao and where Louis van Gaal failed in coaxing out his ability, Mourinho will be hoping to succeed. It’s worth noting Chelsea haven’t won a game inside 90 minutes this pre-season ahead of Swansea’s visit on Saturday evening.

Big season for: John Terry. Father time waits for no man, and the 34-year-old will be out to prove he can still mix it with the best.

Prediction: 2nd

Manchester City

Manuel Pellegrini admitted this week he failed last season. Eight points is too big a gap, and he’ll want to get off to a fast start, otherwise he’ll be collecting his P45 before the nights draw in. Raheem Sterling has been brought in for a British-record fee, while two other Englishmen have arrived in Fabian Delph and Patrick Roberts to appease the home-grown quota. Question marks hang over captain Vincent Kompany, and this is a big season for him after several below-par performances last season; especially in the Champions League against Barcelona. The squad was beginning to look stagnant, and a summer clean-up was needed. However, Edin Dzeko’s impending sale to Roma may not be the wisest move.

One to watch: Patrick Roberts. Showed promise at Fulham and with better players around him, has the ability to showcase his talents in a supporting role.

Prediction: 3rd   


Many pundits’ tip for the top. Cech is a stellar addition, and if Arsene Wenger was hoping to improve the core of his squad, he couldn’t have picked a better option in goal. A striker is now a must before the window closes, while cover in the holding midfield position is needed; especially with Jack Wilshere facing another extended spell on the sidelines.

Big season for: Mesut Özil. Shown glimpses of world-class quality, but is yet to fully justify his price tag. Battle-hardened after two years in England, expect great things this time around.

Prediction: Champions

Manchester Utd

You get the impression the club is still in transition after another summer of comings and goings. Wayne Rooney is expected to take centre stage up front, and will feel the weight on his shoulders with the departures of Falcao and, more pertinently, Robin van Persie. Javier Hernández and James Wilson will be expected to play important supporting roles, while there’s much anticipation over Memphis Depay’s debut season. Pedro looks set to be an upgrade on the inconsistent Angel di Maria. However, last season’s failings have yet to be addressed. United looked defensively vulnerable and unless van Gaal twists, expect similar shortcomings. Will David de Gea stay or go? The situation is far from ideal, and is an unwelcome situation hanging over the club heading into the new season.

Big seasons for: Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Make or break campaigns for both players for club and country.

Prediction: 4th. Just.


Hugo Lloris’ speedy recovery from a broken wrist is a massive bonus. He came off the bench during the pre-season victory over AC Milan on Wednesday, and although he’s a doubt for the opening game against United, his importance to Spurs cannot be underestimated. Defensive failings last season have been addressed, and the prospective partnership of Belgians Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld looks promising. Harry Kane’s breakthrough year was astonishing, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to cope with the greater scrutiny Premier League defenders will give him. Should injury hit them up front, they may struggle, so another forward would be welcome before August 31st.

Big seasons for: Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. Both players will have the England full-back positions in their sights ahead of next summer’s Euros.

Prediction: 6th


Ian Ayre declared himself extremely happy with their summer transfer dealings. The stardust applied by Luis Suarez is long gone, and the loss of Steven Gerrard will be more felt off the pitch than on it after his decline over the past 18 months.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and this is apt when describing this group of players. James Milner will look to take centre stage after spending much of his career on the right, and he’ll be dovetailing with Jordan Henderson in filling the Gerrard void. Nathaniel Clyne is yet another arrival from Southampton and he’ll be looking to nail down England’s number 2 jersey. While Christian Benteke is a definite upgrade on Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert combined.

Big season for: Jordan Henderson. Acquiring the captain’s armband will not phase the England midfielder, but only time will tell whether he can continue his upward spike while taking on the added responsibility.  

Prediction: 5th   


You cannot help but be impressed with Ronald Koeman. This time last year, they were earmarked for a relegation battle, yet his dealings in the transfer market proved astute and Southampton remained a force to be reckoned with. Fraser Forster will be missing until at least the spring after knee surgery, but Koeman has drafted in Maarten Stekelenburg on loan in another shrewd move. A caveat is their involvement in the Europa League. History suggests juggling this with the rigours of the Premier League may prove to be an inconvenience.

Big season for: Jay Rodriguez. Missing since April 2014, Rodriguez will first look to regain his place in the starting line-up. Talk of England may be further along in his sights, but is a decent carrot for the once-capped forward.

Prediction: 9th


The fairytale continues. Last season saw a record points tally in the Premier League and their progress in the English football pyramid looks set to continue. Garry Monk has proven in his short managerial career to be the perfect man for the role. Not only has he re-established the Swans’ identity after Michael Laudrup but, in tandem with chairman Huw Jenkins, has evolved the club both on and off the pitch. In many ways, they could become a victim of their own success, with anything lower than a top-eight finish deemed a disappointment. However, with the arrival of Ghanaian Andre Ayew, their forward line has been sprinkled with added dynamism and unpredictability.

Big season for: Ashley Williams. The captain has reaffirmed his commitment to the club after media speculation linking him away. He’ll want to do his talking on the pitch and also help lead Wales to their first international tournament in 58 years.

Prediction: 8th


On the subject of evolution, Mark Hughes has done exactly that after the Tony Pulis era. Hughes has done everything asked of him since taking on the role. Retaining their stubborn resilience in the defensive areas, Hughes has added an attacking verve and a more fluid style of play. Bojan was an inspired signing last year and had he not sustained a serious knee injury, may well have been the signing of last season. Ibrahim Afellay may prove to be yet another smart piece of business, as he looks to replicate the early promise that saw him move from PSV to Barcelona.

One to watch: Jack Butland. Losing Asmir Begovic to Chelsea is a blow, but the time is right for Butland to realise his rich potential and provide stiff competition to England’s current number 1 Joe Hart.

Prediction: 10th

Crystal Palace   

Alan Pardew begins his first full season in charge, and has made significant strides in the transfer market. Yohan Cabaye is crucial to their season, and will add supreme quality to the central midfield. Yannick Bolasie remains their trump card and he’ll be looking to add a greater consistency to his performances. Last season saw a lack of consistency in their attack, and this looks set to continue. It remains to be seen who Pardew opts for up front. So it’s a straight fight between Patrick Bamford, Fraizer Campbell, Dwight Gayle, Glenn Murray, Connor Wickham and Marouane Chamakh. Who’d be a manager?

Big season for: Wilfried Zaha. Yet to assert himself in the Premier League after early promise. Upstaged by Bolasie last term, he’ll be looking to kick on and is another who will be looking to convince Roy Hodgson of international recognition. 

Prediction: 11th


Chelsea’s public courtship of John Stones has been as unwelcome as a midsummer cold. It’s imperative he stays if Everton are to challenge for the European places. Gerard Deulofeu’s return was well received and Tom Cleverley will look to prove his doubters wrong. Both are low-risk acquisitions and the former will certainly add a greater threat to their forward line. A striker to help Romelu Lukaku share the workload is needed as Arouna Kone looks to be found wanting. Everton have produced some of the finest young English talent the league’s seen over the years, and both Tyias Browning and Brendan Galloway are the latest off the production line.

Big season for: Ross Barkley. Struggled last year and will be looking to assert himself as one of the finest players of his generation.

Prediction: 7th

West Ham  

Big Sam was never the right fit for their supporters, despite restoring their Premier League status and stabilising the club. West Ham will be desperate to remain in the top flight as they move home next summer, as the thought of them beginning life in the Olympic Stadium in the Championship is a financial no-no. Dimitri Payet managed 16 assists in Ligue 1 last season, a league high, and will hope to replicate this. However, with Andy Carroll and Enner Valencia expected to be out until September and October respectively, Slaven Bilic should be looking to add a striker to his ranks in the coming weeks. A massive season.

Key player: Adrián. With goals looking hard to come by in the attacking third, added responsibility falls at the hands of their Spanish keeper.

Prediction: 14th

West Brom   

Pulis came in and did exactly what was expected of him in maintaining the club’s Premier League status. The same applies this time around, but Pulis will want to kick on. Rickie Lambert’s arrival adds to their forward ranks, which already boasts one of the most gifted strikers in the division in Saido Berahino. Keeping him amid interest from Tottenham and Manchester City is paramount. A hallmark of any Pulis side is defensive stubbornness. Indeed, the Baggies kept 10 league clean sheets at the turn of the year following his appointment and this looks set to continue.

Ones to watch: Rickie Lambert and Saido Berahino. Both will be looking to board the plane to France next summer.

Prediction: 13th


Many eyebrows were raised when Nigel Pearson got the axe midway through the summer break. Pearson was a fans’ favourite and despite his sometimes awkward relationship with the media, was generally respected for the job he had done not only in gaining promotion, but maintaining their top-flight status. Claudio Ranieri’s star has fallen since he was last on these shores, with his last post with Greece ending with defeat at home to the Faro Islands. Yes, player of the year Esteban Cambiasso decision to leave is a big blow, but N'Golo Kante’s arrival from Caen will hopefully offset this. (Kante made the highest number of tackles in the top five European leagues last season with 176). Ranieri has seen better days, and this appointment will ultimately cost the club.

Player to watch: Jamie Vardy. Will be hoping to prove last season was no fluke. Just three years after playing non-league at Fleetwood, he’ll be hoping to add to his solitary England cap.

Prediction: 19th


A summer of optimism at the club. Since Mike Ashley’s address to their supporters before the final game of last season, not a great deal has gone wrong. The club stayed up, changed their manager and have brought in three signings totalling around £35m. A word of caution. Steve McClaren failed to gain promotion with one of the strongest squads in the Championship last season at Derby and question marks remain of his suitability at this level.  

One to watch: Rolando Aarons. Progress has been stifled by a persistence of niggling injuries, but his ability is without question. Should McClaren give him a run in the side, could set the league alight.

Prediction: 12th and a good cup run.


With Premier League survival secured, it seemed surprising Dick Advocaat announced he wouldn’t be staying at the club. However, after a u-turn Advocaat remains in charge and stability can only be a good thing for the club. Two signings in particular stand out. Advocaat is reunited with Jeremain Lens for a third time, while the loan signing of Yann M'Vila from Rubin Kazan is sure to excite the fans. However, it’s firepower they need and after losing Connor Wickham to Palace, they surely need to bolster their attack before the window closes.

One to watch: Jeremain Lens. Adds much-needed pace to their forward line. You don’t win 30 caps for the Netherlands without having something about you.

Prediction: 16th

Aston Villa

Since FA Cup Final day, not a great deal has gone right. Not only did they lose 4-0 to Arsenal, but they’ve gone on to lose their two best players. Christian Benteke’s goals will be hard to replace, while captain Delph’s departure doesn’t send out the right message. Players will always come and go, but the ones that have come in will have to hit the ground running. Nine in. Nine out. Continuity is lacking and from the nine arrivals, only Scott Sinclair and new captain Micah Richards have Premier League experience.

Big season for: Jack Grealish. At just 19, carries the hopes of the entire club. Will need to grow up fast. That and probably decide where his international loyalties lie between England and Republic of Ireland.

Prediction: 17th


Along with Swansea, probably the feel-good story in recent times. The job Eddie Howe has done is nothing short of miraculous. But it’s in the past. Now in the big time for the first time, they need to accept the players are there on merit. They have some outstanding talents in their squad. Yes, the vast majority lack any Premier League experience. But those that do have unfinished business, while Sylvain Distin holds the record for the most appearances made by a foreign outfield player in the league. Full-back Simon Francis, winger Matt Richie and Callum Wilson will all be desperate to prove they belong at this level.

One to watch: Matt Ritchie. Most assists in the Championship last season with 16 is no mean feat.
Prediction: 15th


It’s difficult to argue with any conviction they are well placed to stay up. Their previous two campaigns in the Premier League have each lasted just one season, while their Head Coach Quique Flores has no experience of managing in this country, let alone the Premier League. The permanent capture of Matej Vydra will please their fans after two separate loan spells and the arrivals of Etienne Capoue and Valon Behrami offers much-needed Premier League experience. However, neither have excelled at this level with Spurs or West Ham to date.

One to watch: Troy Deeney. For many years he has lead the line with great distinction in the Championship and the captain will be desperate to prove he can rub shoulders with the league’s meanest defenders.

Prediction: 20th


Their most recent experience in the Premier League brought mixed fortunes. Yes a third season ended in relegation, but 2011/12 and 2013/14 saw 12th and 11th finishes respectively. Norwich gained 17 wins from 25 games under Alex Neil following his appointment in January, and he will hope they carry this momentum into the new season. One major plus is a large chunk of the side that played here last has remained. And they’ve added top flight experience in Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu, Robbie Brady and Andre Wisdom. Whether they have the required quality remains to be seen.

Ones to watch: Wes Hoolahan and Nathan Redmond. Both have the required quality to unlock Premier League defences.

Prediction: 18th

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Five things we've learned from Everton’s season:

Plenty to ponder: Martinez has his work cut out this summer
1.       Playing in the Europa League proved costly

It goes without saying playing in the Europa has a detrimental impact on your league form. Strictly speaking, this shouldn’t be the case. Sides playing in the Champions League have to contend with playing two games in a week – Wednesday / Saturday, so why should Thursday / Sunday be any different? The reality is over the years, it’s proven to be a hindrance. Firstly, some Champions League gameweeks fall on a Tuesday, so there’s the extra day to recover. More open to debate, is that players are constantly playing catch-up. Mentally, they have to play 24 hours later, and know in advance how many points they need from each game to remain in the chasing pack. One undeniable factor is Europa League sides are far more likely to travel to far-flung places. Yes the Champions League has played host to several minnows over the years but, by and large, trips to the Baltics and Eastern Europe are reserved for Europe’s secondary competition. Hopefully the younger players have grown from this experience.

2.       Howard’s World Cup hangover cost points

Below par: Howard will come back stronger for 2015/16 season
Tim Howard has had his worst season in an Everton shirt. His form has been erratic, and has not exuded confidence to his fellow defenders. This is far from being his last season at the club though. I fully expect him to recover and return rejuvenated for next season after a full summer off. One word of caution, as it stands he is due to return to the international fold this autumn after a year away from the US team. Only time will tell whether the 36-year-old is able to juggle the demands of playing for both club and country.

Source: Opta
Errors Leading to Goals
 Rob Green
Tim Howard
Asmir Begovic
Brad Guzan
Aston Villa
Tim Krul

3.       Aging squad

Much has been made of Everton’s fine younger players. But it is undeniable that several areas of the squad need revamping this summer.

Average Starting XI Age
Source: Opta
Manchester City
West Brom
Crystal Palace

As a keeper, Howard is far from finished at 36. But he only has one or two seasons left at the highest level, and the jury is still out on Joel Robles. Sylvain Distin and Gareth Barry, more than any, have aged a great deal over the past 12 months. Distin has been a fine performer for this club, and his contributions should be widely acknowledged. Time waits for no man, however, and it looks likely he’ll leave when his contract expires this summer. 

Midfield steel: Flamini & Song would be welcome additions
More worryingly, is Barry’s situation. So desperate was Roberto Martinez to tie the former England midfielder down last summer that he offered him a three-year deal. At several junctions this season, this decision seems laughable. Slow in possession, and caught out on several occasions, Barry’s years are catching up with him. Everton could do far worse than moving him on and bringing in a younger replica. Both Mathieu Flamini and Alex Song appear surplus to requirement at Arsenal and Barcelona respectively, and should be attainable.

4.       Lukaku has no competition
Arouna Koné’s fitness issues remain a concern, while Steven Naismith is not an out and out number 9. Samuel Eto’o arrived last year with great anticipation, and showed glimpses of class when deployed up front. But too often, he was utilized either as a number 10, or in an unfamiliar left or right-sided role. It is pointless lamenting his mismanagement, as it is believed he was a negative influence around the dressing room. Moving forward, the introduction of one, possibly two strikers is needed. Not only will this take the weight of responsibility off the 21-year-old Lukaku’s shoulders, but will also make Everton less one-dimensional in the attacking third. Far too often we’ve been chasing games with a lone striker this season. It’ll give Martinez the option to play two or three forwards should the situation merit it either from the off or during a game.

5.       Lack of character
There has been a lack of leadership and sense of responsibility in the side this campaign. Ironically, captain Phil Jagielka could well end up winning the club’s player of the season award. But by and large, throughout the squad, players have to take more responsibility. Leighton Baines relinquishing penalty duties is one case in point. Collectively, they need to show the required determination to see themselves through games.When they’ve fallen behind, very rarely have they shown the fight or quality needed in the final third to reverse the game in their favour. While winning positions have far too easily disappeared.

Source: Opta
Pts lost from leading positions
Hull City
Aston Villa

Robles consoled at West Ham after seeing his penalty hit the bar
True, bad luck has played its part. When they have shown strength in the face of adversity - down a goal and reduced to ten men at West Ham in the FA Cup - lady luck was not on their side. (2-2 AET before a 9-8 shoot-out resulted). Martinez has regularly said his charges have been playing catch-up from points dropped against Leicester and Arsenal in the first two league games. But frankly, such a defeatist attitude should be consigned elsewhere.

Monday, 18 August 2014

What we’ve learned from the opening weekend

The 23rd instalment of the Premier League got underway on Saturday and although there weren’t fireworks, it’s a relief to have finally shaken off the World Cup hangover.  

There's still one more fixture to come tonight as Chelsea travel to Burnley, but what of the opening nine games?

Manchester City were solid if not spectacular in a 2-0 win at Newcastle. Manuel Pellegrini has added astutely to his group of champions. Fernando already looking a more solid option in front of their back four than his compatriot Fernandinho. Edin Džeko continues to impress and is now one of the first names on the team sheet, while strike partner on the day Stevan Jovetić will be better off going into his second season. Joe Hart was chosen ahead of Willy Caballero, Gael Clichy was solid out of position at right back and Aleksandar Kolarov was a powerful threat in a more advanced left-sided role.

Newcastle put up a decent fight. Five of their eight new arrivals featured, as Alan Pardew attempts to banish the daemons of the second half of last season. They’ll understandably take time to gel, whether Pardew will be around to enjoy the fruits of his summer labours remains to be seen. At 10/1 with various bookies to be the next managerial casualty, punters are already licking their lips.

Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey cemented his status as the heir apparent to Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in scoring crucial goals from midfield. His last-minute winner sealed a belatedly deserved 2-1 win over ten-man Crystal Palace. Ramsey’s now scored in three of Arsenal’s last four league games. If he remains fit for the majority of this season, Arsenal will surely be title contenders. Arsène Wenger’s headache over where best to utilise Calum Chambers intensified after an impressive central showing from the Southampton academy graduate. Box office arrival Alexis Sánchez showed glimpses of what he can do but, assist aside, has more to offer.

Palace were uncharacteristically generous in gifting Arsenal two goals from set plays. Whether this is an immediate differential between the stoic defensive unit seen under Tony Pulis and their new side remains to be seen. Co-Chairman Steve Parish has already admitted the need to appoint a new manager sooner rather than later to make best use of this transfer window. How the next couple of weeks pan out will have major repercussions on their season.

Liverpool began life without Luis Suarez with a similar performance to City – they ground out a 2-1 win at home to Southampton. Jordan Henderson continues to grow in stature in this side. His role in their opener further demonstrating how his all-round game has evolved as he snatched possession before delivering a superb through ball for Raheem Sterling. Saints old boys Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert were missed more by the visitors than they were enjoyed by home supporters, while Adam Lallana sat this one out with a knee injury.

The new Southampton weren’t too bad. Many expect them to struggle after allowing several stars to leave. But this side didn’t role over, quite the opposite. They did enough to merit at least a draw, and came close several times to not only going ahead at 1-1, but equalising after falling behind to Daniel Sturridge’s 79th minute winner. Dušan Tadić looks a shrewd acquisition – fantasy managers will know the Eredivisie’s stand-out performer last year created 133 chances, made 119 key passes and picked up a league high of 14 assists. Manager Ronald Koeman has tasted success in three different European countries with Benfica, Valencia, Ajax and PSV and is the right man to lead a revolution.

Much has already been written on Manchester Utd’s opening day defeat at home to Swansea. ‘New season, same United’ the general gist. Hard to add too much to this, other than it was clear to see systems don’t come into it. They were as poor in a 3-5-2 as they were when Louis van Gaal switched to a back four. As refreshing as it was to see youth given a chance, the squad requires two or three stellar signings before the window closes if they are to mount any assault on the title.

For all of United’s failings, Swansea were impressive. They accomplished Garry Monk’s game plan of being clinical on the counter. Despite having less possession (60-40%), shots on goal (14-5) and corners (4-0), they did all you need to win a football match by scoring more than the opposition (1-2). While observers continue to write them off, they’ll flourish – as has been the case in their recent history. Gylfi Sigurðsson arguably the player of the week.

Everton are going to miss Ross Barkley’s brilliance for at least five months if rumours of the England protégé’s knee injury are to be believed. His enterprise may well have been the difference for Everton at league new boys Leicester, but Aiden McGeady and Steven Naismith did their prospects of filling in for Barkley no harm with a goal each. The visitors’ defence continues its steady evolution into Wigan’s under Roberto Martinez. That’s now at least two goals conceded in three of their last four league games. Various internet tributes were bestowed on Tim Howard for his heroics at the World Cup (preventing the extinction of the dinosaurs a personal favourite), yet he was powerless to stop Leonardo Ulloa and Chris Wood.

It was always a tough ask for Everton to win on the opening day at Leicester, as history dictates new boys invariably pick up something on the opening day at home. Yet this Leicester side are doomed for an instant return to the Championship if they don’t make significant movements between now and the transfer window closing. Susceptible at the back, devoid of creativity in midfield, one thing going in their favour is Ulloa’s ability to find the back of the net (16 goals in all competitions for Brighton no mean feat). He’ll need to remain injury free if they’re to stand any chance.

It’s looking increasingly likely it’s best for all parties if West Ham and Sam Allardyce part company. This inevitable outcome was accelerated after a late home defeat to Tottenham. Their fans have been brought up on an exhilarating brand of expansive football that’s seen them peak domestically with a third-place finish in 1986 (although they’ll have you believe they won the World Cup in ’66). Cries of a return to these glory days appear to have fallen on deaf ears as the social-media challenged David Gold drags his feat. Big Sam’s cave-man-like football does have a place in this division, and will continue either at the Boleyn Ground or at some other relegation-threatened outfit in a few months’ time.

Tottenham snatched the win in the last minute through newbie Eric Dier. They weren’t impressive and will need to find their rhythm if they are to remain in the Champions League positions. That said, the old mantra of winning without playing at your best will be needed this year as they juggle domestic issues and Europa League commitments.

QPR surrendered 1-0 at home to Hull – James Chester now with a strike rate to rival Cristiano Ronaldo’s after two goals in his last two games (the first coming in May’s FA Cup final). Charlie Austin failed to register his first Premier League goal after missing a penalty and it goes without saying these are the games Harry Redknapp needs to win if they’re to stand any chance of retaining their top flight status. Steve Bruce, on the other hand, will be delighted with this one. Not least because it was Hull’s first win at Loftus Road since 1963.

Stoke may have contracted second-season syndrome early under Mark Hughes after a similarly disappointing reverse at home to Aston Villa. Despite an impressive ninth-place finish last term, it appears they still have teething pains as they abandon their tag of route-one specialists for a more technically and tactically flexible outfit. This switch is personified in former Barcelona starlet Bojan.

Stoke’s victors Aston Villa now have Roy Keane on their bench…

His presence almost certain to spark new life into the majority of last season’s passengers and move them up several places from an uninspiring 15th place finish last time out.

West Brom and Sunderland served up an entertaining 2-2 at the Hawthorns as they refused to appear last on Match of the Day. Both will need to strengthen defensively in the coming weeks, but appear to have no problems in the attacking third. The Baggies will benefit from Saido Berahino’s continued development, while Gus Poyet will hope to resolve one way or another the future of Connor Wickham, who has only a year remaining on his contract. For the record, they appeared midway through Saturday’s show. Both managers would settle for a similar league placing come May.

So, the Premier League’s back. In summary: Hard-earned wins for City, Arsenal and Liverpool as United continue to flounder. Tottenham finally beat West Ham as Pochettino confirms reports he speaks English. English goalkeeping talent given fresh impetus with Fraser Forster’s arrival in the Premier League, while the league’s longest-serving player Gareth Barry shows all his nous by doing his best impression of getting sent off without leaving the pitch. Teammate Romelu Lukaku’s only just escaped Wes Morgan’s back pocket while another centre back, Brede Hangeland, continues to love London life with Palace. Aly Cissokho rocks up at Villa, while Southampton's Pelle is not quite Pele. West Brom lose their stripes as Southampton find their’s. Joey Barton remains a dirty bastard and Erik Lamela’s still shit.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Amid the storms, our very own feel-good story

Wee-ride: Ric Wee made the most of the card he was dealt, with a little help from his friends
Last week the unthinkable happened. Not one but two Premier League matches were postponed. With state-of-the art pitches, under soil heating, floodlights etc, etc, it is vary rare to see games in the top flight called off. Indeed, Goodison’s last game to fall to the elements was against Leeds over 13 years ago.

So when Ric Wee travelled 7,000 miles from Malaysia to see his beloved Blues play, the last thing he’d have feared was the Palace game being postponed owing to falling debris outside the ground caused by high winds.

Thanks to the quick thinking of Helen Mayo and various others behind the scenes at the club, Wee’s trip was not a wasted one, and he was afforded free reign of Goodison’s corridors and enjoyed a laugh and a joke with Leighton Baines and Roberto Martinez.

Wee’s story made national news, as the footballing community warmed to his predicament. Such bad luck, such misfortune. Coral have offered him free tickets the next time he’s over and his Twitter followers have risen to over 8,500.

While Wee became a mini celebrity overnight thanks to the power of social media, he was inadvertently putting overseas blues fans - and overseas football fans in general - on the map.

The domestic fans are the bread and butter. We travel week in, week out; spending our hard-earned money to watch our idols. But there are millions of fans across the globe who, despite the gulf in distance, are as fanatical and as passionate as us.

While in South East Asia last year I had the pleasure of meeting up with the Singapore Everton Supporters Club. Despite enduring a torrid game which saw us dumped out of the FA Cup to Wigan, the occasion was slightly soothed by sharing anecdotes into the early hours with a group of die-hard Evertonians I never knew existed 90 minutes earlier.

Their knowledge, enthusiasm, passion and love for the club would not have looked out of place in the pubs around Goodison.

But how does someone so far away from the UK end up dedicating so much time, money and emotional energy towards a club they have never seen in the flesh?

In the wake of our Malaysian friend’s experience last Wednesday, I made contact again with Jiing Yih Ong, a member of the fan club, and asked him why he follows the Blues.

“It was during one of my lowest ebbs in 2004, when I saw Everton struggling,” he told me.

“(This was) no way for a club with such heritage, grandeur and great fans – it immediately presented to me a team whose stature befits an always big club.

“A club who I could identify with, the decision to follow and support was simply a no-brainer.”

And so began a ten-year love affair that, in truth, is a mere drop in the ocean of millions of fans across the globe who dedicate themselves to following a club. We brave the elements, the delayed trains; they fight against their body clocks and dodgy internet streamings.

Across all sports, to have that release at the end of a trying and testing week is sacrosanct. With a win, the euphoria makes it all worthwhile. You wake up the following morning with a spring in your step and pore over the morning match reports. When you draw – currently too frequently in Everton's case – you shrug and get on with things. A loss? Well, you forget the papers exist.

But for thousands of overseas fans around the world, they don’t get the chance to walk away from the ground win, lose or draw – and yet still feel all of the above.

Jiing Yih for one is yet to enjoy the stadium experience.

“No excuses, but there are seemingly legitimate reasons why I'm yet to get to Goodison: namely family and finances,” he reasons.

“However the firm belief is that the first trip of many would signal a positive turning point in my humble life as a Blue.”

Jiing Yih’s predicament is understandable. Unless you’re earning the mega bucks of Singapore’s thriving financial centre in Marina Bay, it would be a massive ask to afford a return trip to watch your club.

But the reality is that, just as our pitches have been invaded by foreigners since the mid 90s, so too have Premier League clubs’ fanbases. Those with shorter flights do regularly make the pilgrimage (cue Scandinavian red-noses jokes).

I’m not privy to Wee’s financial situation. But I’m assuming the return flights for himself and his family, plus tickets in the Joe Mercer Suite, would have set him back a fair bit.

Finances aside, it is the human element of the story which has truly resonated, and struck a chord both domestically and back in Wee’s South East Asia.

Jiing Yih added: “It’s a shining and magnificent example of how the fans can be and are taken care of even in exceptional circumstances.

“The Club is humble yet full of camaraderie, kindred spirit, kindness and feels homely.”

All traits that brought Everton to the attention of Jiing Yih and helps sum up why the institution is known as the People's club. A club for the people.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Titanic tussle in store at OT

Sir Alex versus Arsene Wenger. Schmeichel versus Wright. Vieira v Keane. Van Nistlerooy v Keown. Manchester United v Arsenal returns to our screens on Sunday as two of the Premier League’s mainstays go head to head in the latest chapter of this compelling duel.

Not so long ago, this fixture was the stand-out game in the Premier League calendar as the footballing community paused for 90 minutes to watch these two juggernauts go at it hammer and tongs.

This contest was formerly given great attention as Sky counted down the days to kick-off. This time there’s no ‘Grand-Slam Sunday’. No ‘Face-off’. No booming sinister voiceover as the two captains ride into a ghost town, chewing on grass stalk with the only sound the rustling of bales, agitated saloon doors and the clicking of boot spurs as they dismount for a standoff. Sunday’s encounter shares the billing with two other contests in a rather modest ‘Super Sunday Hat-trick’. After a lull of around eight years, there is much to suggest the titanic battles of the mid to late nineties and early naughties are about to return.

Arsenal are currently benefitting from a three-pronged attacking midfield three of Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla and the reborn Aaron Ramsey. The trio are finding pockets in between the opposition’s backline and midfield, yielding great success. Ramsey alone has already scored 11 times in all competitions. Compare his tally to his two strikes from last season, and you can understand why various pundits expect him to reach 20 goals - and why he’s an early frontrunner for Player of The Year.

Wayne Rooney has dismissed talk of United’s title defence going up in smoke should they lose on Sunday. However, ten games in and there’s much to suggest the league is beginning to take shape. This game carries with it huge significance; especially where Arsenal are concerned.

November has recently proved to be a graveyard in picking up points. Good starts have been derailed:

                 P   W   D    L   WIN %   WIN % SEASON
2006/07    8   3    2     3    38%             47%
2007/08    5   2    2     1    40%             60%
2008/09    8   4    1     3    50%             54%
2009/10    5   3    0     2    60%             60%
2010/11    8   4    0     4    50%             52%
2011/12    6   3    2     1    50%             57%
2012/13    7   2    4     1    29%             53%

Indeed, Wenger was correct to flag Rooney up on his assertion that Arsenal have traditionally faded away. Wenger’s charges have relied heavily on strong finishes to recover winters of discontent.

As Arsenal recovered from the opening-day defeat to Aston Villa, Wenger could’ve be forgiven for having one eye on the month that has proven so often to be his team’s Achilles heel. A much-improved Liverpool were to travel to the Emirates, while the Champions League group stages sandwiched a visit to Borussia Dortmund in between this weekend’s trip to Old Trafford. Wenger will also have envisioned quicker than most the work being done by Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, Arsenal’s visitors to the Emirates after the international break.

Brendan Rodgers’ side were beaten 2-0, while a 1-0 success at the Westfalenstadion in midweek avenged the home defeat to Dortmund last month. Arsenal have negotiated the above challenges so far, and travel to Old Trafford five points clear at the top of the league. They are arguably favourites ahead of the game, a far cry from the embarrassing 8-2 defeat they suffered at Old Trafford a little over two years ago.

Arsenal have also learned to cope with the absence of influential holding midfielder Mathieu Flamini in their last two games. When the Frenchman was forced out of the first Dortmund game owing to concussion, Arsenal missed his presence and fell to their first defeat in 12. Flamini’s latest groin injury hasn’t been felt as hard, with the team picking up wins over Liverpool and Dortmund; Mikel Arteta providing the shield to their back four. Should Flamini miss out, Arsenal’s fans won’t be as concerned as they may have been four weeks ago. Notwithstanding this, Flamini has been an unsung hero for Wenger this season and, if selected, will need to be at his best to keep an increasingly influential Rooney quiet.

As for United, David Moyes will be encouraged with the shoots of recovery after a jittery start to his tenure. Despite rumours Rooney wanted out in the summer, he has, along with Adnan Januzaj, been their turn-to guy. Since United lost at home to West Brom in September, they are on an eight-game unbeaten run. A Januzaj-inspired 2-1 success at Sunderland acted as a catalyst for this sequence, and Wenger will be weary of the threat posed by the Belgian teenager.

The two sides’ contrasting styles will make for intriguing viewing. Arsenal’s midfield protagonists will hope to keep things congested through the middle, while United will look to profit on the counter in wide areas. It will be interesting to see who Moyes opts for on the right wing. Nani has enjoyed previous meetings against Arsenal, while Antonio Valencia scored in his last outing against Fulham, and will hope to retain his starting berth.

History dictates Arsenal success over United leads to greater success for the North London club over the course of the season. In their three Premier League triumphs, Arsenal stand unbeaten in six league encounters including four wins. Their two successes at Old Trafford provide iconic mementos to Arsenal fans, as images of Marc Overmars and Sylvain Wiltord wheeling away in celebration secured the league title on both occasions.

Although success at the weekend won’t seal their 14th league title, nor end their nine-year wait for a trophy, it will give Arsenal great self-confidence as the nights draw in and the season really cranks up. Rooney’s assertion that defeat won’t be a season-ender may be true, but it will severely dent Moyes’ mojo as he looks to justify his tag as the Chosen One.

Expect fireworks, if not flying pizza.